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Three Ways to Select a Candidate

September 23, 2012

Breaking news: Mitt Romney is an out of touch plutocrat who holds 47% of America in contempt. In all seriousness, I think Romney’s remarks were as inaccurate and insulting as his critics have made them out to be. Still, it seems to me that most critics are missing Romney’s point, which was not so much to slander working Americans as to draw attention to the fact that he needs to appeal to undecided voters to win the election. Romney may be wrong about the 47%–but surely he is right about the 3.1%.

Thus far, Romney’s strategy for winning over the 3% or so of undecideds has been to make the election a referendum on Obama. In doing so, he has taken it for granted–wrongly, judging by recent polls–that independents won’t carefully consider the merits of the stimulus package, auto industry bailouts, or other Obama administration initiatives. While it is possible that there are enough easily manipulated voters in the electorate to secure a Romney victory, I am not so sure. Certainly, there is no dearth of voting guides out there. And my hunch is that a trusted friend or website is going to have more influence on undecideds than Romney campaign messaging.

In Catholic circles, at least, the main question being asked by undecideds right now is not “am I better off today than I was four years ago?” but rather “which candidate is most committed to protecting life from conception to natural death–if any?” Obviously answers to the second question vary. Catholic social thought does not map easily onto American politics, with the result that Catholics face a complex set of considerations when deciding which lever to pull in November. (I am voting Obama, in part because I am a Catholic, but mostly because I am a liberal.) Leaving aside Romney’s appeal to the lowest common denominator, I have come across three main schools of thought in the Catholic blogosphere and elsewhere. While I will focus on undecided Catholic voters in what follows, adherents to each of the “three schools” I have identified can be found both inside and outside of the Catholic Church.

The first school of thought seeks to influence public policy by beating politicians at their own game: power. This school sees cynicism and manipulation behind the politician’s mask of high-minded slogans and rhetoric. Yet rather than withdraw from the political process in disgust, this school seeks to advance its interests through campaign contributions and voting decisions. A secular example is the Wall Street firm that makes campaign contributions to both major candidates with the goal of gaining influence no matter what the outcome of the election. More relevant here are the Evangelicals and other religious conservatives who have reliably voted Republican since Reagan. While the GOP needs support from this voting bloc to win elections, abortion and same sex marriage are generally low on its list of priorities–a reality that has become especially apparent through the candidacy of Mitt Romney. In response, some religious conservatives now seek to re-assert their influence over the GOP. Here, for example, is the advice of Mark Shea to conservatives:

We’re not at Election Day. You don’t have to vote today. What you and I have to do–today–is tell this cynical, manipulative, unprincipled man whose moral center is made of tofu that he had better knuckle under and do exactly what we, his employers, demand he do or we will make life hell for him and his party. We have to tell him that if he complies with what we want, we will reward him and his party. We have to, in short, remember that they work for us, not we for them.

Shea knows full well that Romney is far more interested in protecting the wealth of the 1% than in protecting the unborn or the institution of marriage. He nevertheless seeks to mobilize fellow conservatives to beat Romney into submission. There are two reasons why Shea’s strategy is likely to fail. For one thing, shifting to the right on social issues may win Romney some votes, but it will cost him others. A majority of Americans now favor same sex marriage, which doesn’t bode well for a power play on the part of religious conservatives. Second, if Romney is indeed cynical, manipulative, and unprincipled (as surely everyone who has been closely following this election agrees), then religious conservatives can expect that any campaign promise he makes to curtail abortion or same sex marriage will become null and void the moment he assumes the oath of office.

The second school of thought holds that undecideds should carefully weigh the issues and select the candidate accordingly. A secular example of this school is the MPR “select a candidate survey.” For Catholics, there is the USCCB’s voting guide, Forming Consciences. What this school overlooks is, to quote Cathleen Kaveny, that “apart from referenda items, voters are asked to select among people, not positions.” The Catholic voter who votes for Romney based on his ostensible position on abortion makes the basic mistake of this school. While it is surely possible that Romney has changed his mind since he vehemently defended abortion rights in 2002, abortion has not featured prominently in his campaign rhetoric and, moreover, his track-record of opportunism calls into question the sincerity of his position.

Finally, a third school of thought encourages undecided voters to balance a broad consideration of issues with a consideration of particulars. In the current issue of Commonweal, for example, Cathleen Kaveny critiques the USCCB’s voting guide for falling into what she calls “the single-issue trap” of encouraging Catholics to “first consider abortion and then consider everything else.” Generally, when this point is made it is by Catholics who wish to highlight other morally significant issues: torture, unjust war, and so on. Kaveny’s point is that the USCCB’s discussion of abortion and other issues is too abstract:

How, then, should citizens think morally and practically about the issues relevant to a particular election? In my view the term “issue” is vague; too often the word simultaneously encompasses the diagnosis of a problem, an account of its cause, and a proposed solution. Evaluating a candidate’s stand on the issues requires careful attention to each of these three factors. Furthermore, political issues and the underlying problems they highlight claim our attention in different ways. Some are important, even fundamental, because they go to the basic structure of the political community; others are urgent because the mandate to protect the well-being of the community demands that they be addressed here and now. Issues, then, are not abstract propositions about the community; they are action items, indicating the problems that can be addressed by the tools available to political officeholders. Instead of evaluating the relative significance of issues in the abstract, voters should consider whether and to what degree the problems identified by the issues can be ameliorated by the particular candidate seeking a particular office.

Of the three schools of thought, I am most sympathetic to the third. I do wonder, though, how realistic it is to expect voters to grapple with candidates and issues at this level of sophistication. We may not be a confederacy of dunces, as Romney seems to suppose, but does that make us a nation of philosopher kings? Someday, I hope.

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